Beguiling Beetroot

Beets. You either love them or hate them. There doesn’t seem to be an inbetween. Those who love them praise their earthy, sweet flavor. And those who don’t… complain they taste like “dirt.”

The earthiness is due to a compound called geosmin (meaning “dirt smell”), which is the same odor that hangs in the air after a rainstorm, and is detectable by the human nose at extremely low concentrations. Some people are overly sensitive to geosmin, so even a small amount may elicit a strong, negative response. Beet lovers, on the other hand, might enjoy the earthy after-rainfall smell, and therefore associate the taste of beets with nature, lushness, and the outdoors.

If you are in the beet-hater camp but want to take advantage of the health benefits of this superfood root vegetable, it’s important to recognize that different beet varieties contain different amounts of geosmin. The lowest concentrations are found in the Detroit Dark Red variety and the highest in Chiogga beets. At the University of Wisconsin, Professor Irwin Goldman has recently bred a new series of beets, called “Badger Flame,” which includes “Badger Flame, Badger Torch, and Badger Sunset” varieties. These beets have a sweet, non-earthy, taste and are designed to be eaten raw. If you can’t get your hands on Badger Flame beets, adding an acid (orange sections, vinegar) to your beet recipe will help neutralize geosmin and reduce the earthy flavor.

Beets are a Nutritional Powerhouse

With all that said, beets are a low-calorie nutritional powerhouse, containing vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants galore. Raw beets will provide the greatest nutritional value, with longer cooking times negatively affecting some of the phytonutrients.

Vitamins. Beets contain vitamin A, C, B2, B6, and folate. Vitamins A and C are antioxidant in nature, with vitamin A also being important for healthy vision, immune system, reproduction, and more. Vitamin B2 (riboflavin) is needed for normal cell function, and to turn food into energy. Vitamin B6 is important for brain and nervous system health as well as immune system health. Folate is needed for cell division, blood cell production, DNA and RNA production, and more.

Minerals. Beets are one of the best sources of dietary manganese, an essential trace element. Manganese is a cofactor for enzymes with actions ranging from bone formation to antioxidant activity to blood clotting, to immune response, and more. It helps lower the risk of osteoporosis, and maintains bone density over time. There is silica in beets that helps with collagen formation and bone mineral balance to also contribute to osteoporosis risk reduction.

Beets are also a good source of dietary potassium, which supports bone and muscle function, nervous system function, and cardiovascular health. Beets also contain magnesium, which supports healthy blood pressure, energy production, and muscle and nerve function. Smaller amounts of iron, copper, and phosphorous are also present.

Phytonutrients. Beets contain a host of plant compounds with health-promoting activities. Betalains give beets their red color and have antioxidant, anti-inflammatory, anti-cancer, and detoxification properties. For maximum betalain activity, you’ll want to eat beets raw, or steam for a maximum of 15 minutes.

Betaine is another important phytonutrient found in beets that can help support emotional health, fight inflammation, and stimulate liver function. Beets also contain amino acids, including tryptophan, which is helpful for emotional health.

A unique constituent of beets is nitrate, which helps relax blood vessels to promote healthy blood pressure and support cardiovascular health. In fact, the nitrates in beets may act in concert with a compound known as betanin which has activity as a free-radical scavenger, antioxidant, and gene regulator to counteract cardiovascular disease mechanisms without adverse effects.

Polyphenols in beets also have excellent antioxidant activity.

Health Benefits

We’ve talked about many of the compounds found in beets, but with respect to health promotion, the whole may be greater than the sum of the parts. Eating beets may have some of these benefits:

Blood pressure regulation. Both the nitrates and the potassium in beets help lower blood pressure. Nitrates convert to nitric oxide in the body, which acts to relax and widen blood vessels. Potassium also helps relax blood vessel walls, and counteracts the effects of sodium. Both cooked and raw beets reduce blood pressure, with raw beet juice having the most pronounced effects.

Glucose regulation. Beets are low in carbohydrates, rich in fiber, and contain phytochemicals that can regulate insulin and glucose in the body. In healthy volunteers, beet juice suppressed the typical blood sugar spike seen after meals. Another study found that beetroot juice increased insulin sensitivity in obese people with pre-diabetes. Talk with your healthcare practitioner about whether it makes sense to add beets to your diabetes diet.  

Anti-inflammatory effects. The nitrates found in beets and beet juice have been found to counteract inflammation and promote cardiovascular health. Another study found that a betalain-rich beet concentrate improved knee function and decreased joint pain in patients with knee discomfort. In late 2020, researchers discovered a peptide in beets that may be useful for treating inflammatory and neurodegenerative diseases, and it is being considered as a possible new drug candidate.

Bone Health. As discussed in the minerals section above, beets contain a variety of nutrients that support bone health and connective tissue formation, prevent the loss of bone over time, and decease the risk of osteoporosis.

Digestive Health. Beets are high in prebiotic fiber, which helps feed the good gut bacteria that boost the immune system and fight disease. Fiber also helps the gut to function optimally.

Brain Health. The nitric oxide in beets mentioned earlier may dilate blood vessels in the brain, increasing blood flow and improving cognitive function. Beetroot juice combined with exercise was found to improve brain neural networks in aging adults. More study is needed to determine whether beets might be effective to preserve brain health as we age.

Side Effects

One interesting but non-harmful side effect of beets is their ability to impart a pink or reddish hue to urine and stools due to the colored betanin compound. Approximately 14% of the population has difficulty metabolizing the betanin, resulting in the condition known as “beeturia.” The exact mechanism is not fully known, but patients with iron deficiency seem to experience this colorful side effect at a greater frequency than those without.

Bottom Line

Beets are truly a superfood, packed with nutrients galore. If you can tolerate the earthy aroma, you’ll want to make beets part of your healthy diet.

Here’s an interesting twist on a beet salad recipe with zucchini noodles. Give it a try and let us know what you think!

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